Pastoral care in tight places

Cf62b1ee-de67-4cd2-8d7e-333a273d112fRecently  I got an email from a dear friend who teaches at Knox College, asking, "Is there any chance you can come to Knox in the next few weeks?"

The Jewish community at Knox has been navigating some tough stuff around racism and antisemitism. (I don't want to give that stuff energy by linking to it; if you're interested, Google will enlighten you.) And there's no Jewish chaplain or campus rabbi to offer pastoral and spiritual support as the Jewish community navigates these tight places. 

So I'm going to Knox for a few days. While I'm there I'll join the chair of the religion department for a few of his classes, and I'll give a poetry reading. But the primary purpose of my visit is to offer care to the campus Jewish community. I'll hold "office hours" for anyone who wants to talk, and I'll offer a Jewish contemplative practice opportunity that will be open to all. 

My visit to Knox is pastoral. I'm not coming as an expert in antisemitism or racism. (The College is looking into having an actual expert in those areas come to campus in the fall -- hopefully a Jew of color.) I'm coming to be a chaplain, a "non-anxious presence." I hope my visit will offer some comfort to Jewish students/faculty/staff. Those who are in tight places need care. 

What's unfolding at Knox is part of a much larger phenomenon. People and organizations and institutions are beginning to grapple with the far-reaching effects of both racism and antisemitism and how different forms of oppression can mirror, intersect, and collide with each other. There's an opportunity for tremendous learning here -- and also a need for inner work to prepare the soil so that the seeds of that learning can bear fruit.

Many Jews with white skin don't think much about how our skin benefits us and how we partake in white privilege by virtue of our skin. And we may also be unconscious of how horrendous and pernicious are the impacts of racism in this country. America still hasn't reckoned with our legacy of chattel slavery or how that legacy persists in structural racism of all kinds, including police violence against people of color, mass incarceration of people of color, and widespread prejudice against people of color.

Many people who are not Jewish don't think much about the legacy of centuries of antisemitism: from ancient hatreds that led to exile, to Church teachings about deicide, to pogroms and mass slaughter (from Lisbon to Kishinev), to the Holocaust: the 20th-century Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And they may also be unconscious of how even light-skinned Jews fear the antisemitism that's built into white supremacist worldviews, and of the trauma we carry as Jews.

(I spoke about these issues at length in my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year: After Charlottesville.)

And, not all Jews have white skin. It's easy to frame the tensions at Knox, or the recent tensions around whether or not the ADL should participate in Starbucks' anti-bias training, in terms of the colliding worldviews of Jews and people of color -- but that framing erases altogether the presence of Jews of color. And... I don't want to make Jews of color responsible for educating the rest of us -- for sensitizing their Jewish community to racism, or sensitizing their community of color to antisemitism. 

We all need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, even when (especially when) that learning is uncomfortable. There's so much that we all need to learn about each other... and when we're feeling attacked or traumatized or activated by an incident of hatred or bias, it's incredibly difficult to do that learning. When we're feeling attacked, emotionally and spiritually we shut down. It's a valuable defense mechanism. We need to honor that and give it appropriate time before we can move beyond it.

As I prepare for my visit, I'm working on the practice of cultivating compassion for everyone who feels afraid and marginalized and attacked in the current American political climate as incidents of hatred continue to mount. I'm reminded of the teaching that no one gets to tell a member of another group whether or not they're experiencing oppression: we need to listen to each other and honor each others' experience. I'm thinking about how rarely we give ourselves space to pray, reflect, and heal.

I'm thinking about how important it is that our communities come together to work against hatred, prejudice, and bigotry of all kinds. I'm thinking about the work we can do together when we find the places where our yearnings and politics align -- without demanding complete mutual understanding or ideological perfection, because if we demand complete understanding from our allies before we can begin to work together, we'll never get to the kind of justice that the world so desperately needs.

And I'm thinking about the need to replenish ourselves as we work toward that more just world. Sometimes in order to have the strength to have the difficult conversations about how someone else's unconscious "stuff" hurts us, we need to turn inward first. We need to notice, and balm, our own aching places before we can build bridges or coalitions with others -- especially when our interactions with those others have re-activated those aches. We need to be kind to ourselves as we process and heal. 

May I be an instrument of balm and comfort for those in need.


Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene

The-cooking-gene-book-coverI just finished Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene. It's a deep exploration of southern cooking, African cuisine, slavery and its continuing impacts, and how food shapes our sense of where we come from and who we are.

I'm an outsider to the African American cultural history this book chronicles. But I know good memoir when I read it, and this is good memoir. It's also a rich, complicated exploration of race and history and memory. And from time to time it's also a meditation on Jewishness and food, and on those subjects at least I feel some reasonable semblance of expertise. Twitty chose Judaism as a young adult, taking on the mitzvot and the Jewish people's long history along with the histories of his genetic ancestors. (In addition to being a culinary historian, he's also a Judaic studies teacher. Wow do I wish I could bring him to my shul to teach my b'nei mitzvah kids.)

*

I read this book on my phone, on airplanes to and from my own birthplace in south Texas. If I'd read it on paper, I would have annotated the heck out of the volume: there would be underlined passages and exclamation points in the margins at the passages that moved or surprised me most.

As it is, I don't have quotations to share with you. I can only reference some of the passages that have stayed with me: the part where he writes about cooking on a plantation using his ancestors' tools and ingredients -- the part where he traces ingredients from Africa, transplanted along with the people for whom they were familiar -- the part where he writes about tracing his white ancestry (because white slaveholders raped the women they "owned," and therefore he is descended from slave owners as well as slaves) -- the part where he offers quotations from historical sources about the "Middle Passage" and what slavery actually entailed -- the part where he's teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, and slavery comes up, and one of the kids tells him it was a long time ago and he should "get over it" -- the part where he writes about picking cotton and almost glimpsing the ghosts of his ancestors around him, noting that the ashcake they ate in the fields was truly the bread of affliction. (I will hear echoes of that this Pesach when I take my first bite of matzah.) The conversations with Low Country chefs and experts who are preserving Gullah food and culture, and with southern "good old boys" who are Confederate re-enactors -- and the agony of not being able to trace his whole family tree, because during slavery families were broken apart and records didn't preserve data because these human beings were considered chattel, not human beings... 

What moves me most is Twitty's combination of love for where he comes from, and willingness to approach his history (which serves as a synecdoche for African-American history writ large) with generosity. He celebrates soul food without ignoring its roots in slavery and scarcity. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the horrors of slavery, nor the ugly ways in which those horrors still shape the relationship between whites and people of color in this country today. And, he makes the conscious choice to pursue connection, even with the descendants of those who enslaved his forebears, without spiritual bypassing or pretending away the damage done to African American communities to this day.  Maybe that's why this book feels redemptive to me. 

*

Reading The Cooking Gene, I found myself thinking a lot about the foods with which I grew up as a white (Ashkenazi) Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents in south Texas, and the foods I've embraced as an adult seeking a more multicultural approach to cooking and eating, and how race and history play into all of these.

I was particularly struck by Twitty's tracing of West African ingredients and flavors into American forms. I learned to love (and to cook!) Ghanaian food thanks to my ex-husband Ethan. He lived in Ghana for a year on a Fullbright grant right after college, and has returned there often since then. I only went to Ghana with him twice, but those trips impacted me. (See Dancing with the widow, an essay from 2000.) Our son has a Akan day-of-the-week name, and was blessed with Ghanaian moonshine and a libation poured to the ancestors at his naming ceremony where he also received his Hebrew name.

My two trips to Ghana don't make me an expert on anything, but they give me a personal connection with the place and the people I met while I was there. That feeling of connection intensifies the awfulness of reading Twitty's words about slavery. (On my first trip to Ghana I visited Cape Coast Castle, one place where slaves were loaded aboard ship to sail across the sea in unthinkable conditions toward even more unthinkable futures.) And that feeling of connection intensifies my delight at recognizing African ingredients transplanted into the southern American culinary vernacular, and recognizing the indigenous and African roots of some of the foods I grew up eating. (Here's a blog post from Twitty about the Colonial roots of southern barbecue -- a story that you can also read, in somewhat revised form, in the book.)

If you are interested in food, memory, race, or American history, this book is absolutely worth reading. (And if you are not yet interested in the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, I expect you will be by the time you finish.) I recommend it highly.

 

Posts by other folks:

 


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »


After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of "blood and soil," "white lives matter," and "Jew will not replace us;" white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car -- all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a "Shabbesdik" (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we're meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, "praying with their feet," as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa's suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity's worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they're clearly intertwined -- I recommend Eric Ward's essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that's a sign of my privilege. I haven't had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don't mean to parrot the "all lives matter" rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn't change the fact that in today's America, we don't all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today's America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won't all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it's incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I've often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we'd been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

 

Cross-posted, with some additional framing material, to my From the Rabbi blog.


More gun violence; more racism; more grief

Once again, horrific violence. A white gunman named Dylann Roof entered a Black church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine, including a pastor who was also a state senator. (New York Times: Charleston Church Shooting Leaves 9 DeadNew Yorker, Murders in Charleston by Jelani Cobb.)

According to witnesses who survived, the gunman asked for the pastor, sat next to him during Bible study, and then shot him, saying "I have to do it; you rape our women and you're taking over our country." The church in question is one of the oldest Black churches in the United States.

When I think about the racism and the hatred which underpinned this act of terrorism, I am beyond words.  I react like a child: this shouldn't be possible. But it is all too possible for people to be steeped in hatred and fear of those who look different from them, and for that hatred to lead to murder.

Tomorrow is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. There is a horrible confluence in that remembrance and this latest act of hatred against Black people. And that the shooting took place in a church, a house of worship and peace, just makes it more awful still.

The victims and their loved ones are in my prayers. You can send your support and prayers with the members of Mother Emmanuel church here, and if you would like to send a donation to the church and/or the families of the victims, here's the church's website.

A a white woman witnessing this horror from afar, I feel called to teshuvah, to soul-searching. What can I do to change the reality in which this kind of hate crime is possible?  I want my nation to be better than this. I want humanity to be better than this.

May the Source of Comfort bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.

 

Worth reading:

  • "Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?" -- Anthea Butler, in the Washington Post
  • "There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship." -- President Barack Obama, remarks
  • "A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce. Racism aims to crowd out those sanctuaries; even children changing into church choir robes in Alabama have been blown out of this world by dynamite. That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well." -- Jamil Smith, in the New Republic
  • And here are words from one of my rabbinic colleagues: "What we need is a passionate and healing response to our national pain and fragility, one that unabashedly calls out the racist undertones of media reporting, which, it seems, differentiates by label between white, black and brown criminals and victims." -- Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in the Huffington Post

 


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.



"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.

 


On the Chapel Hill shootings

150211-barakat-yusor-razan-jsw-852a_448d1550491c2a68cc4cb35492ea7cd2

The most heartfelt -- and heartbreaking -- piece I've read about the Chapel Hill shootings is this one: My best friend was killed and I don't know why. I commend it to you, along with this NPR piece -- 'We're All One,' Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said in StoryCorps Talk:

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," Yusor Abu-Salha said in a conversation with a former teacher that was recorded by the StoryCorps project last summer...

"There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions — but here we're all one, one culture."

What a terrible shame it is that we are only getting to know these luminous young people on the national stage because they were shot in the forehead, execution-style, in Deah and Yusor's own home.

For my response to the killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, click through to The Wisdom Daily:

My first response to this news is grief. I imagine myself in the position of the parents of the victims, and my heart aches. I can only imagine what their families are going through. (Yusor and Razan were sisters - grief compounded.) Their deaths are atrocious. That would be true no matter who they were. But somehow, their murder is all the more horrifying because the victims were young, and idealistic, and by all accounts were trying to make the world a better place...

...[H]ad the shooter been Muslim, surely the headlines would have been emblazoned with "terrorism." But because the shooter was White and the victims were Muslim, this story gets reported as a "fatal shooting" or a "possible hate crime." Those covering the crime use softer words, as though they could make the reality any less terrible, and as though they could remove our own sense of guilt for living in a society where Islamophobia may lead to senseless violence...

Read the whole thing here: Shock in Chapel Hill - Should We Call It Terrorism?

I'm grateful to the editors of The Wisdom Daily for including me among their roster of contributors, and hope you'll click through and read. (Also, if you're on Twitter, consider following them - @WisdomDailyNews.)


Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King

Martin-Luther-King-I-have-a-dream_0Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Va'era. (At least, this is the script from which I spoke. Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


God spoke to Moshe saying: go and tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from his land. (Exodus 6:10)

This week we move deeper into our people's central story: we were enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This year, our reading of this holy story falls on the weekend when we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Day.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr -- alav hashalom / peace be upon him -- was a man in the mold of Moses. He worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. He organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which attracted national attention because television crews captured the brutal police response. He dared to dream of a world redeemed in which the evils of racism would be a thing of the past.

As Jews, we twice a year recount the story of how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt -- during the weekly round of Torah readings, and at the Passover seder. We also thank God for our liberation from slavery in daily prayer and in the Friday night kiddush.

Our liberation is spiritual, not literal. None of us here today were actually slaves in Egypt. And many of you have heard me say before that it doesn't matter to me whether or not that story is historically true. What matters is that it's the story we tell about who we are.

But for Martin Luther King, the story of liberation wasn't about freedom from internal constriction, the "narrow places" in our lives or in our hearts. His ancestors were slaves to plantation owners and overseers in the American South. Not in the mythic mysts of ancient history, but a short few hundred years ago. And the unthinkable injustices of that system which treated Black human beings as subhuman chattel have not yet been wholly rooted-out.

Continue reading "Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King" »


Prayer After Eric Garner

 

Nishmat Kol Chai / Breath of All Life:
Your breath enlivened the first man,
You breathe
the breath of life in each of us.

Today our breath is shortened
as we remember Eric Garner gasping
"I can't breathe," an elbow pressed
around his neck.

Breathe into us
determination to build a better world
where no innocent is killed
by those sworn to serve and protect.

Ignite us toward justice.
Eric Garner was made in Your image.
His six children, bereaved: in Your image.
Every Black man, woman, and child

twenty times likelier to be killed by police
than their white neighbors:
in Your image.
Help us to root out from every heart

the hidden prejudice
which causes police to open fire in fear,
which transforms a child in a hoodie
into a hoodlum, a person into a threat.

Comfort the families of all who grieve.
Strengthen us to work for a world redeemed.
And we say together: Amen.


Nishmat Kol Chai is a Hebrew name for God; it means "The Breath of All Life." It is also the name of a prayer which explores this theme, recited on Shabbat and festivals.

On "Your breath enlivened the first man," see Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) 2:7.

On "twenty times likelier to be killed by police / than their white neighbors, see Pro Publica's report Deadly force, in black and white.

For more on the connections between the Hebrew n'shima (breath) and neshama (soul), and how these relate to the death of Eric Garner, see Rabbi Pam Wax's post I Can't Breathe -- IMO Eric Garner.

Here's a statement from T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on the death of Eric Garner and our justice system: Justice for Eric Garner.

 


Justice, justice shall you pursue

Eric_garner_memorial

I know that I do not understand the American legal system as well as I could. I know that I particularly don't have a nuanced understanding of grand juries and how they function. But even from my relatively inexpert standpoint I can tell that something is not working right in our justice system.

You probably know by now that a grand jury has decided not to charge the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death. Apparently the officer thought he was selling loose cigarettes. Which he wasn't. But that's not the point. Eric gasped "I can't breathe" eleven times before he died.

Chokeholds, as it happens, are banned by NYPD's standards. Eric was unarmed when the officer choked him and killed him. The whole awful incident was caught on video tape. And now the grand jury has decided not to press charges against this officer who killed an innocent Black man.

If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors and defenders could have argued the facts of the case. But the grand jury's decision means it won't go to trial. Exactly like the recent grand jury decision which means that officer Darren Wilson won't be tried for the killing of Michael Brown, either.

What message can this grand jury decision possbibly send to Americans of color? Judging by the Black voices in my Twitter stream, what it says is that Black lives are insignificant. How else to interpret the reality that someone who kills a Black man in full view of the public isn't even brought to trial?

People of color do not feel safe in this country, and I can understand why not. Don't believe me? Read about how Black moms have to have "The Talk" with their kids -- about how to appear unthreatening, and accept humiliation as necessary, in order to not be killed by trigger-happy fearful white people.

It is terrible enough that people live in fear of their children being mistreated, humiliated, or killed because of the color of their skin -- because a Black teenager (even in his own home!) might be mistaken for a criminal, or if he reaches for a bag of skittles he might be "reaching for a gun."

It is so much worse that people live in fear of the police and the legal system which are supposed to protect us from precisely that kind of prejudice and injustice. Cops are supposed to keep us safe. The legal system is supposed to be righteous and just. And right now those seem to be questionable.

This isn't just about officer Daniel Pantaleo and the fact that he will not see trial. It's about the fact that white people and people of color experience different systems of justice. It's about the shameful truth in W. Kamau Bell's On Being a Black Man, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014. (Read it -- the shame lies not in his fear of police, but in the fact that today's reality gives him reason to fear.)

I am holding the grieving family of Eric Garner in my prayers. And I am doing my best to listen to people of color in this country about the reality they inhabit, and to take their lead on working toward change. I do not want to live in a country where the following tweet seems so painfully true:


Injustice: the Ferguson grand jury's decision

I'm mostly offline this week, but I just saw the news that officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, will not face trial. (See Ferguson police officer won’t be charged in fatal shooting and Ferguson smolders day after grand jury decides not to indict officer.) Apparently this means that the grand jury decided that there was not "probable cause" that Wilson had committed a crime. The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus says that the Ferguson decision shows that black lives have no value.

This decision is part of a pattern (see Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Is Just The Latest To Go Unprosecuted For A Fatal Shooting, which looks at shootings by police in the St. Louis area: "Since 2004, St. Louis County police officers have killed people in at least 14 cases. Few faced grand juries, and none was charged.") And I know that this is not only a problem in St. Louis. (See 'Epidemic of police violence in US’: Black person killed every 28 hours, and on CNN.com, Ferguson: the signal it sends about America.) While I'm sharing links, don't miss Chronicle of a riot foretold by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, which I found both painful and powerful.

My computer time right now is limited, and I don't have the spaciousness to craft an impassioned essay about how and why this is not the America of my hopes and dreams. (Instead I'll link you back to what I wrote a few days after Michael Brown's killing -- Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men.) But I am holding the family of Michael Brown (may his memory be a blessing) in my prayers. And I pray for change and for justice. In the words of the prophet Amos, "May justice roll like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

 

Edited to add: I commend to you rabbinic student Sandra Lawson's A Prayer for Ferguson.

 

 


Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men

Ferguson

I've watched with grief and horror this week as stories have emerged of police shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Ezell Ford was shot by police in Los Angeles. Both of these deaths come on the heels of the death of Eric Garner, strangled by police in New York, only a few weeks ago. Mother Jones reports Four Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police In The Last Month.

I've been following the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter. "If the police shot me," ask those who tweet with this hashtag, "what photograph of me would the news reports show?" The subtext is often: the news media would choose a photo which makes the victim look "like a thug," as though that justified the killing of an unarmed human being. (See the pair of photos enclosed in this post for an example of what that means.)

Bu7pN-ZIAAAmx_PI've been reading the essays which smart friends have shared, among them Black kids don't have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. Jasmine Banks writes:

Let me be clear: Unarmed college hopefuls don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don't deserve to be shot.

The act of pinning the tragedy of a dead black teen to his potential future success, to his respectability, to his "good"-ness, is done with all the best intentions. But if you read between the lines, aren't we really saying that had he not been on his way to college, there'd be less to mourn?

Also The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America. In that essay, Mychal Denzel Smith writes:

Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?...

Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.

Continue reading "Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men" »


Confronting Jewish privilege at the Jewish-Muslim emerging leaders retreat

Bigstock-silhouette-of-ten-young-women-15281810-996x497-53ad8f22“If you have parents who went to college, take a step forward.”

“If when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”

“If you see people who share your identity reflected on television and in movies in roles you don’t consider degrading, take a step forward.”

When we began the exercise, we were standing in a row, holding hands. Our facilitators took turns reading a series of statements: if this is true for you, step this way. If that is true for you, step that way. It wasn’t long before our chain of hands was broken.

Before this session, I would have said I was aware of my privilege as a white, affluent, college-educated, Jewish cis-gender woman. I’ve read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. But it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aware of privilege as I had thought.

In Jewish Renewal we speak often in the paradigm of the “four worlds”, of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought) and atzilut (spirit/essence). In briyah, the world of intellect, I think I did have a handle on my own privilege. But when I had the physical experience of having to let go of the hands of my friends, and of seeing at the end where each of us was positioned, the realities impacted me in the emotional and spiritual realms, and they hit me hard.

This exercise, often called The Privilege Walk, was part of our session on “Challenges in Jewish-Muslim Engagement” at a wonderful retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, held this month in Chester, Connecticut, and organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College’s department of multifaith initiatives...

Read my whole essay at Zeek: New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege.

 

Deep thanks to RRC and to the Henry Luce Foundation for making the retreat possible, and to my Jewish and Muslim sisters who attended, facilitated, and taught at the retreat.

Shabbat shalom and chodesh Tamuz tov to my Jewish readers; to my Muslim readers, Ramadan Mubarak!


Reparations and teshuvah

I want to call your attention to a remarkable essay published last week in the Atlantic, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called The Case for Reparations. It is long, and it is tremendously worthwhile. Here is one very brief quote, to pique your interest:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Once you've read it, I commend to you the following specifically Jewish responses:

Ask yourself | Jewschool. "Once you read this very long piece (very long but read it) and nod to the facts and shake your head at the horrific racism at all levels most likely, most probably, you will think: But my family didn’t live in the U.S. when it engaged in slavery. But that doesn’t matter. Anyone living in the United States benefits from the economic realities built on slavery. Every white person has been enriched by the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and Federally insured lending practices. This goes well beyond being afraid anytime the police stop you or having people cross to the other side of the street when you pass at night."

 The Jewish Case for Reparations -- to Blacks by Emily L. Hauser in the Jewish Daily Forward. "In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet... We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we aren’t required to complete the task of righteousness, neither are we free to desist from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of (in Coates’s words) 'ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.'"

Late in the essay, Coates writes:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us. The idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.

Coates is calling us to a process of what my tradition calls teshuvah -- the internal work of discernment, atonement, and creating change.

I hope his essay sparks a major American communal conversation. And I especially hope that it sparks a conversation in the American Jewish community (or, more accurately, American Jewish communities -- we are many and varied!) about racism, about our complicity in racist systems, and about teshuvah.

 


Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.

There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

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